India can be surely proud of its disciplined, apolitical and brave armed forces. Our military not only represents a potent force, but is a unique force in the world that is constituted by the amalgam of various races and religions held together by their loyalty to the nation and pride in their service. It is incumbent upon the nation and its leadership to nurture and conserve this national treasure, and be profoundly discrete in its application.
Quartered in snow, silent to remain. When the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again. — The Scroll of Honour at Siachen Base Camp
The Instrument of Last Resort
The paradox of modern democracy is that it fully insulates the decision makers from the hazards of war…
We as a nation are at the intersections of a wide array of consequential geopolitical changes occurring both within and without. The complex conflict system situated in our West remains a perennial source of serious concern and an incessant drain on our military resources. It is not only the Line of Control (LoC), but also has various forms of insurgencies that put onerous demands on the military. Although both India and China have learnt to manage the difficulties in the Himalayas, the unresolved border remains pregnant with immense disruptive potential.
Our geographical location and our growing economic and military heft, will catapult us into a situation that will impose a crucial role on India in finding an answer to the famous conundrum – whether the world falls into the Thucydides trap or not?1 National security issues have entered the popular consciousness due to a growing number of terror related incidents, thus making national security an important electoral issue and a subject of, not always very well informed, intense media debates. This makes apportioning the glory of success of the armed forces quite irresistible for the political classes. The military will be asked not only to perform the conventional security role it has played so far, but also to play a greater role in future geo-political dynamics in the making of our international aspirations and countering the associated challenges.
As the military’s role will undergo both qualitative and quantitative changes, a case for profound reorientation in perspective of our military cannot be overstated. There is no argument against the civilian control of the armed forces. Even Clausewitz argues that maintaining political control is not a question of values, it is in effect the key to success. Nevertheless, we need to re-evaluate our accountability mechanisms related to deployment of the armed forces. We need robust structures that ensure that our young men are put in harm’s way only when all other alternatives are exhausted. Therefore, given the growing complexities of the role the military must play, it is incumbent upon the political leadership to articulate the national goals (or the grand strategy) and clearly outline the expectation from the military thus enabling the military leadership to evolve appropriate military strategy.
Isn’t the time ripe to revisit this problem and the strategy of continuously sending our bravehearts into harm’s way?…
Furthermore, we need to evolve a new framework for national defence that allows the military leadership direct access to the decision and the policy making processes of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). This hinges not only on the structural changes in the defence establishment, but also demands domain expertise from amongst the political leadership.
Democracy, Media and the Overstretch of the Military
The strange dynamics of democracy, as illustrated by the examples from the world over, (e.g. the second win of George Bush following the Iraq War or as some term it as the ‘only win’), gives rise to a situation what economists call a ‘moral hazard’ – a situation in which the risk taker does not pay. This means that those who decide to go for war have the least to lose, because unlike in the past when the Kings decided to go to war they had to put their own lives and those of their kin and even their kingdoms in the line of fire. Although nowadays, it is the soldiers who fight the wars, the decision makers, the political and the bureaucratic elite, have almost no skin in the game.
The paradox of modern democracy is that it fully insulates the decision makers from the hazards of war. The digital age Napoleons – our Presidents and Prime Ministers, undertake wars from super-safe, nuclear-proof war rooms. On the contrary, the decision of wars or the use of force can be easily appropriated for elections and this process has been made easier with the advent of the 24×7 news channels. The media allows itself to be manipulated, for obvious reasons, to create massive information asymmetries where the real intention of the decision makers is often not only obfuscated, but also the tactical outcomes of the application of force are increasingly emphasized regardless of the long term consequences. Heavy dollops of rhetoric and sentimentalism employed by the media in order to raise their Television Rating Points (TRP) completely edge out the need for objective analysis of the reason for deployment of forces and whether the strategic objectives were achieved.
The onset of social media is, to a significant degree, responsible for greatly diminishing our sensitivity towards the consequences of loss of lives of our soldiers, an illusion of having fulfilled our duty as citizen is accomplished by clicking ‘like’ or ‘share’ on the pictures of funeral pyres of the martyred soldiers or their wailing kith and kin left behind. Without really experiencing the actual pinch of the situation, the Facebook warriors emerge thirstier for masculine action and revenge, and are ever willing to fight to the last drop of the soldiers’ blood. It might appear a bit exaggerated, but the 24×7 TV coupled with social media has reduced the LoC to an arena with our soldiers as gladiators.
The onset of social media is, to a significant degree, responsible for greatly diminishing our sensitivity towards the consequences of loss of lives of our soldiers…
Lack of robust oversight mechanism over deployment of forces, and the enabling space, created by the advent of the new media that allows easy appropriation of the successful operations, raises a genuine question. Does this scenario enhance the propensity to deploy the armed forces as an alternative to diplomacy or as an instrument for addressing internal security problems arising out of inadequacies in civilian governance? Doesn’t this predicament compel one to believe the saying, “Wars are created by politicians, compounded by diplomats, and fought by soldiers?”
Is Blood Less Precious than Treasure?
The ease with which the executive deploys the army can be aptly described by the so-called ‘Law of Maslow’s Hammer’ which states, “… it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Therefore, from the boy ‘Prince in the Pit’ (the child who fell into a borewell in Haryana) to Pakistan, it is the Army that has to act. All other organs of the state appear almost dysfunctional in periods of crisis, be it acts of terrorism, communal riots or natural disasters.
Are We Discrete in Using Our Armed Forces?
An honest look at what our nation-building project costs in blood and treasure will not be misplaced when it comes to comprehensive national power. To that end, the state exchequer offers the treasure while it is the armed forces that contribute their blood in the accomplishments of national goals.
For enforcing the accountability on the use of treasure, we have the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The CAG audits the revenues and expenditure of the Government. Its report is not only taken up by the Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament but is also available in the public domain. In the recent past, it was the CAG report that brought out the 2-G and Common Wealth Games (CWG) scams thereby placing the massive financial demeanours of the then government into the national focus.
Furthermore, the PAC not only discusses the CAG reports, but also goes beyond examining cases involving losses, nugatory expenditure and financial irregularities. Thus we can say a high-powered mechanism is in place that has the capacity to raise the red flag when the executive falters and squanders national treasure.
The state exchequer offers the treasure while it is the armed forces that contribute their blood in the accomplishments of national goals…
The question is, do we have such a mechanism for ensuring accountability of how we expend the priceless national resource – the blood of our soldiers? We need to remind ourselves with all seriousness at our command that the money squandered, although not permissible, can still be earned back with some hardship and pain, but a dead soldier cannot be brought back to life. Will it be wrong to infer that we are far more concerned about the treasure and very nearly indifferent when it comes to putting our soldiers in harm’s way?
It is high time we have a debate as to when and where we need to deploy the military, so that checks and balances could be imposed on the executive decision making process in order to ensure greater accountability. As discussed above, we must have enhanced oversight and scrutiny of the executive when it comes to the use of the Armed Forces of the Union.
This is not to restrain in any way the ability of the executive to take decisions on deployment of the armed forces to defend national interests. The executive has to act in fast moving situations with ample amount of uncertainty, so large room to manoeuvre is indispensable. But oversight on the deployments is more important to check the tendency of looking at the armed forces as the most reliable back stop – thus relieving the civilian governance structure from remaining alert and serious enough and so prevent the situation from spinning out control to such an extent that it cannot be controlled without the deployment of armed forces.
Also, a fresh look into the eternal stalemate we have had with Pakistan may be in order. Would it be out of place to see parallels between our LoC and the trench warfare of World War I (WWI) that saw incessant bloodletting without any strategic outcome for a very long period? Isn’t the time ripe to revisit this problem and the strategy of continuously sending our bravehearts into harm’s way? As the former National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon rightly points out, India-Pakistan relations are one of the few major failures of India’s foreign policy. A natural corollary to this conclusion could be that the nation perpetually pays for this failure with the blood of its soldiers.